When my friend planned to hike the Appalachian trail, his mother insisted he take her small handgun. I didn't think it would be a great idea in that case, but I'm sure there must be times when such gear would be advisable. Is it ever necessary if there aren't known dangers from large predators?
For the purposes of defense, the only situation that comes to mind would be hiking through an area known for criminal activity ( think marijuana farm ). And even then, is a small handgun really going to help you ward off criminals with assault rifles ( it would probably just get you killed faster )?
If you're thinking of situation involving large predators, think again. Even if you managed to hit a target that's charging right at you, you're chances of doing sufficient damage with a small handgun are slim unless you've some type of professional training for such a situation.
You'll live longer if you stick to nonviolent methods ( avoiding criminal activity / alerting animals to your presence ). I leave my firearms at home when I'm out hiking.
If you need to ask, the answer is almost certainly never.
There are places (Northern Quebec, Labrador, Ontario and Manitoba near Hudson's Bay) where due to polar bear activity you should be accompanied by a guide/guard who will have a serious rifle and dedicate significant time to watching for bears while you do your scientific research or marvel at the scenery. These guides are trained on how to shoot and how to know when to shoot, and their guns are not small.
There are also less wild places where your big worry is the two-footed predators. If you think they are enough of a danger to you that you need a gun, they probably have a bigger gun. You're restricted by what you can carry over days or weeks and the bad guys are not.
This is not to say that you shouldn't bring a gun with you if you are a hunter, you know how to use it, and you know how to tell you should use it. But if you're someone who lives in the city and worries about wild animals attacking you on the trail, not only are you worrying about the wrong thing (spraining your ankle is far more likely to kill you) you are imagining the wrong solution.
No, there is nothing on the AT that justifies carrying a firearm.
The extra weight and space is much more of a detriment than the extremely unlikely and frankly inconceivable case where a firearm would be a help.
Since the AT crosses many jurisdictions, there may also be legal issues that could vary every few miles. The whole concept just doesn't make sense. A spare water bottle consuming the same space and weight would be far more useful.
If you are being attacked by a large predator a "small handgun" will accomplish nothing. If you hit something sensitive you will probably make it angrier - it won't make any difference to you if it dies from it's injuries the day after tomorrow, but at least it had a good final meal.
Smith & Wesson used to make a short-barrel .50 revolver aimed at the wilderness survival market - a 3 inch barrel is nearly useless outside of an elevator but that much power will drop most carnivores in their tracks, assuming you hit it on the first shot. As you won't get much notice from a hunting predator you will have to have the weapon ready - in your pack won't work. If it's a territorial animal you usually have lots of time to leave.
Churchill, Manitoba has a problem with polar bears. The residents there carry either a 12-gauge with deer slugs or a .45 rifle. Yes, that's big, and without experience it's just a noisy club. A charging bear can cover 100 feet in 3 seconds - can you draw faster than that? It's very much like a wild-west duel, loser gets eaten.
Also note that powerful weapons are heavy - you need the mass to soak up the recoil. The above S&W .50 revolver has recoil comparable to a mule's kick, the much larger Desert Eagle is quite manageable.
So unless you are planning on hunting small game, don't bother with mom's .38.
I used to do a lot of backpacking with my wife in the backcountry in the Rocky Mountains. The places we hiked were remote - often hours would pass without seeing anybody else. I gave thought to getting a handgun, as protection from bad folks and/or wildlife. My father and I are fisherman, not hunters, so my knowledge of wild animals was minimal, and I had never given it thought in my younger years. So I started reading up on it, and occasionally talking to people who were hunters (I myself am not).
Over the years I've read various books on the outdoors, have talked to friends and other folks, and of course have spent a lot of time in the mountains, and I came to the conclusion that it is not necessary to carry a firearm for protection against animals in the mountains. Most animals, including black bears and mountain lions, are just too timid, they end up running away when they see you. Chances of a close encounter with an aggressive animal are slim. Supposedly bear spray is as effective, or more, than a firearm, so this, a hunting knife and a walking stick is what I carry. I've never had to use any. That's not to say I can't and won't someday feel threatened by a large animal, but so far I haven't. The handful of times I've seen bears in the wild, they ran away once they saw me. I've never seen a mountain lion at all. (That's not to say they haven't seen me.)
Now regarding whether you should carry a firearm as protection against other people, this is more of a personal choice, but statistically the answer here probably would be no, too. I'm sure we've all got a much greater chance of getting mugged in our hometown than getting attacked out by someone in the wilderness. But I have thought about it before, because where we used to hike we occasionally encountered hunters and once in while our paths would cross with men who didn't seem particularly savory. Again, nothing ever happened, but I think I would have felt better if I had a handgun with me, or at least if they could see that I had one (although not a hunter I am experienced shooting guns). Again, we're talking about people here, and there are certain types of people who will try to take advantage of others if they feel they have the upper hand. So I think this is a personal preference and if I were to go backpacking a lot again in remote areas, I might reconsider getting a .38 or .357. As one of my friends used to say, it's not the 4-legged animals he's worried about, it's the 2-legged ones. I've got a mountain-man buddy in Colorado who lives by himself for months at a time backpacking in the mountains (he's in 60s now and still does this) and he carries a .38 with him.
So... for protection against animals? Should not carry a firearm. Carry spray instead. Protection against people? Personal choice. Generally speaking should not need it.
now of course if you plan to go hunting, that's a different matter. One time, we were hiking and came across a man hiking down the trail with a .22 rifle (with a silencer) slung over his shoulder and holding a blue grouse in his hand. We stopped to talk with him, he had just killed the grouse and was going to prepare it and eat it later for his dinner. He said it's the best-tasting bird you could ever have. After a few minutes, we parted ways and, sure enough, a little bit later on the trail we came across a clearing with a bunch of blue grouse frolicking around. Well, I gave some thought to the idea of getting a .22 (or resurrecting my dad's old .22s), but never acted on it.
Generally speaking I agree with the sentiment that carrying a handgun is not necessary and more likely to get you into trouble than out of it, and I wouldn't suggest it was the right approach, however for the sake of a rounded argument...
I have read & watched several guides on bear encounters, including a mandatory video before hiking in Canada's Kluane National Park. These guides typically say something along the lines of "if you're being mauled by a bear play dead, unless the attack lasts more than 30 seconds, then fight back as it likely has decided to eat you". One day I finally wondered - how would I fight back?
For this reason I always keep a large knife to hand. I don't expect to disable a charging bear with it but I do expect a few slashes to the head / neck could potentially save my life. It's likely a better bet than a clenched fist. The same argument says that a handgun is likely better than a knife.
However you're probably more likely to hit your hiking partner :)
Let me qualify myself, first, for any reader interested: I'm a former Marine and avid hiker, and I consider myself fairly well educated on firearms, their use, and more importantly what it feels like to be afraid for your very life. The above is important when addressing an issue that most people here only have a philosophical understanding of.
To begin, you don't need a firearm. That's a personal choice, much like the choice to carry bear spray, a dedicated axe, or a folding shovel. This choice differs from the aforementioned in that it may carry legal consequence, so do your homework.
Secondly, a firearm could save your life from both two and four legged animals, provided you pack smart. A pocket .25, a .38 special, or a 9mm are not really that effective. Better than nothing in the last two cases, but worse than useless in the first. If you want a pistol, pack a big round with decent penetrating to get through fat layers. Hollow point is not your friend with big game.
In regards to the issues others have brought up, if a criminal armed with a rifle is going to shoot you, a pistol is not going to make it worse. It can only make it better, and I really strongly advise you to ignore anyone who believes that. As a man trained and experienced in that very issue, they're full of it if they're spouting such nonsense.
Yes, you are more likely to die in a car accident than to need a gun. Funny, I was more likely to die in a car accident than to need one in Iraq, but I still had one.
In regards to the likelihood of you shooting your buddy instead of a bear at a few feet, that's Hollywood bs. And NEVER knife fight a bear. Hacking a slashing is not enough. You have to penetrate his hide. Rawhide has been an effective defense against slashing since time immemorial. As for stabbing, you need about a foot and a half penetrating to do much to a bear. Have fun with an 8 inch knife. Also, if you'd like to know how easy it is to ram a knife through a 2 legged predator, go stab a tire. That's kind of what ramming a blase through cartilage and bone is going to feel like.
Point is, you have to weigh the pros and cons yourself. If you have enough gun and there's even a mildly reasonable chance you'll need it, consult the local laws and carry away. If not, or if it's illegal, don't carry. This isn't rocket science. I will say the following, though. One alternative might make people insult you, look down upon you, or avoid your company, but it could save your life. The other will result in those same people most likely not noticing you, and it will make it less uncomfortable for others to talk to you on the trail, but you might end up dead. Take your pick.
I always carry some kind of firearm when hiking, I do not care if I never need one, the fact is, if I do need one it will be a matter of life or death.
I have never needed a seat belt in a car or jeep to save my life, does that mean I should not wear a seat belt?
As for the made up stats on people having issues in state or federal parks, Google will show you there are plenty of times a firearm (with some training) has or would have made a difference.
A firearm is a tool and if needed, could be priceless. I doubt anyone would argue rapes, robberies and murders do not occur in isolated areas of the wilderness, because the facts are such crimes do occur there.
There are lite weight pistols that carry easy and are effective, any woman not carrying a weapon of so kind in remote areas is pretty ignorant in my professional opinion as a former law enforcement officer.
To say that there is nothing that would provide a reason for carrying a firearm while hiking is completely false. There are numerous accounts where people have been killed by wildlife and hostile people. However, this doesn't just mean that anyone should just carry a firearm with them because they are scared. The likelihood of these situations happening is extremely low.
The purpose of having a firearm is to provide an absolute last method of protection from something/someone that is trying to kill you (unless you are hunting). Using a firearm as a means of protection should not be taken lightly. Without the proper training you could be more harmful to yourself than your fear of being attacked.
As for if you should take a firearm with you or not...
Consider the following
- Can you logistically afford to carry a weapon with ammunition?
- Are there any historical cases of animal/human attacks in the area you are hiking in?
- Do you have the proper training to use a firearm against an attacking force?
- Do you have the proper type/size of firearm for the threats you may face?
- Are you willing to kill another animal, or worse, a human if necessary?